1873: Mary Ann Cotton, serial poisoner

2 comments March 24th, 2014 Headsman

Mary Ann Cotton
She’s dead and she’s rotten
She lies in her bed
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing!
Oh what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where?
Up in the air
Selling black pudding a penny a pair.

-Children’s nursery rhyme

On this date in 1873, prolific poisoner Mary Ann Cotton — whom some have tabbed Britain’s first serial killer for an arsenic murder spree claiming 21 or so souls — hanged at Durham County Gaol.

Her exact death toll remains somewhat conjectural since her method of choice — arsenic poisoning — so closely mirrored gastroenteritis. Vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration were hallmark symptoms of both afflictions, and as Mary Ann’s many children succumbed in such conditions over the years, they were easily chalked up to just another childhood mortality among the vast ranks of working poor.

At age 20, she wed a coal miner (her father had been one too, but fell to his death in a mine shaft years before). In the twelve-plus years of their marriage, she bore William Mowbray at least four children. Three died in childhood of — so the death certificates read — gastric ailments. William himself died of one too in January 1865, and Mary banked 35 quid in life insurance on the occasion.

Mary’s own testimony would eventually indicate at least four other children by Mowbray from when they lived in Plymouth. These were the circumstances for a repeat killer to thrive: when a mother can be eight or nine bodies into her career, every one of them close family members, and nobody has bothered to notice. She was said to be a consummate actress in her grief.

With Mowbray and her ample brood — of whatever size — off her hands, Mary Ann now made a career of disposable short-term marriages to men who could support her for a while, and then would mysteriously drop dead of a gastric problem with life insurance policies naming Mary Ann.

An engineer named George Ward, married in 1865 and died in 1866.

A widower named James Robinson had the good fortune to throw Mary Ann out of the house in 1869 for stealing. But that was only after five children in the household mysteriously died (three by Robinson’s previous marriage, one of Mary Ann’s and Robinson’s, and the last surviving child of Mary Ann and William Mowbray). Mary Ann also dipped out of that household for a bit to care for her ailing mother, who also then died within days. Robinson would say after his former wife’s arrest that he had been suspicious of all the dead kids and her eagerness to insure him, but nothing so strong it would lead him to, say, call the police.

In 1870, she found a Northumberland miner name of Frederick Cotton, who gave her the name by which history knows her. Only after Cotton dropped dead — and her lover Joseph Nattrass dropped dead — and a stepson and her own son by Cotton both dropped dead — did the black widow finally come to official attention. That happened when the mother, desperate to fob off her inconvenient last child, incautiously implied to a village overseer in Walbottle, Northumberland where she had moved to wed Frederick Cotton that young Charles Edward Cotton was likely to die soon.*

When he did so, that official had the death certificate held up to examine the boy’s body. Though arsenic’s symptoms were difficult to distinguish from less sinister medical conditions, the mid-19th century had seen the advent of an effective scientific test for toxin: the Marsh test. The end of the arsenic era would be the ensuing decades’ march towards ever more powerful forensic tests that could put the lie to the “gastroenteritis” diagnosis.

The Marsh test easily did so when applied to Charles Edward Cotton. All it had taken these twenty years was for someone at last to suspect something. Her trial of the “West Auckland poisoner” over a few days in early March — delayed because she was pregnant with one last child when arrested — saw intense public interest, and an easy conviction.

She only dropped her pretense of innocence, partially, on the morning of the hanging itself, under the persistent questioning of her Wesleyan minister “when, after some hesitancy, she said, ‘I believe that I poisoned the boy.’ She was also minutely questioned about the other cases of poisoning, and when it was urged that they could not have been accidental, she made no reply, but turned aside, leaving it to be inferred that she had been the cause of the other deaths.” (Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, March 25, 1873)

A fuller account of Mary Ann Cotton’s biography with a handy graphic of her suspected victims can be found in this article by the author of a recent book about the poisoner.

* She was remarking on the difficulty that care of Cotton’s son posed for her intended next marriage/victim. “T’won’t matter, I won’t be troubled long,” she said … which looks foolishly self-incriminating in print, but she had probably said such knowing-wink nothings to others before without trouble, seeing as even the wholesale deaths of several men’s entire progenies had not formerly sufficed to attract an inquiry.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1860: Ann Bilansky

Add comment March 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, Ann Bilansky was hanged in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Bilansky — her Christian name is given as Ann, Anne, or Anna in various reports — was condemned for poisoning her husband, an immigrant Polish saloonkeeper named Stanislaus, so that she could get with her bit on the side.

Just a couple of weeks before Stanislaus’s unexpected March 1860 demise, Ann had gone with a friend to a local drug store and picked up a bit of the deadly powder, allegedly to deal with vermin. (This was arsenic’s very common, legitimate use.) She suspiciously tried to get her friend to put the purchase in her name.

The community suspected Ann a murderess as soon as Stanislaus dropped dead. She showed far less evident grief about her spouse than could possibly suffice for decency, and one local snoop peeped on her being a very merry widow indeed with her suspected paramour … on the very day after the funeral. Call it one for the road: the late husband’s stomach, when autopsied, had revealed that suspicious rat poison. She was soon behind bars, and would be convicted with ease.

(In July 1859, she escaped through a window of the barely-secure jail, rendezvoused with her old lover, and fled to the countryside. It was a week before the law collared her.)

Ann Bilansky continued to maintain her innocence at trial, in jail, and all the way to the scaffold. She reveled in the attention her case garnered and plied numerous visitors with claims of innocence and minute supposed errors in her trial. “She was a complete pettifogger,” said a newspaperman, “and had imbibed an opinion, which is common among better informed people, that technicalities could defeat justice in every case.”

But the versions of events she pushed on her many callers stood so starkly at odds with the evidence and the popular sense of her guilt that she even found her way into the local idiom for a time: a St. Paul resident could drolly call b.s. on someone by remarking, “You have been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, she was a condemned woman — and from the sound of it a rather appealing one — who asserted her innocence, and this meant she did not want for supporters. Legislators were among her jailhouse social circle, and she had enough sympathetic lawmakers that both the House and Senate actually passed a private bill for commutation of her sentence. Gov. Alexander Ramsey vetoed it.

Other visitors arrived bearing more forceful means of liberation: one slipped her chloroform, to disable the guards; a female visitor got caught in the act of trying to swap clothes with the doomed woman. Ann Bilansky even copped to having a specific family that she had arranged to hide out with if she could get out.

She just never quite managed the trick.

Ann Bilansky’s death was accounted a good one by the metrics of gallows-conduct: she did not faint or quail at the sight of the rope, or beg unbecomingly for mercy. But her last words plainly indicate that although she may have reconciled herself to death, she was not in the end at peace with the events that had brought about her end. (Many observers thought she entertained hope for the dramatic arrival of a last-second pardon.)

I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice. I die for the good of my soul, and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice — but I will yet get justice in Heaven. I am a guilty woman I know, but not of this murder, which was committed by another. I forgive everybody who did me wrong. I die a sacrifice to the law. I hope you all may be judged better than I have been, and by a more righteous judge. I die prepared to meet my God.

Bilansky was the first woman executed in the state of Minnesota. (Minnesota had just become a state in 1858.) She remains to this date the last, and since Minnesota has no death penalty at present, she figures to keep the distinction for the foreseeable future.

Source: April 3, 1860 New York Herald

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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1819: Hannah Bocking, 16-year-old poisoner

Add comment March 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1819, 16-year-old Hannah Bocking was hanged outside the Derby Gaol for murdering a friend with an arsenic-laced spice cake. She appears to be the youngest girl executed in 19th century England.

Bocking had been turned down for a household servant’s position on account of “her unamiable temper and disposition,” but her friend Jane Grant had been hired.

Instead of tightening up her job-interview game, the seething Bocking plotted her revenge on Jane, with whom she maintained a feigned comity. One day while out for a walk past the clanking remains of Anthony Lingard, who had been hanged four years before and left on display to strike terror into the hearts of malefactors, the un-deterred Bocking gave Jane her little pastry. Jane ate it, and died in agony, but not so much agony that she wasn’t able to tell what happened.

It was an easy conviction, and the sentence executed just four days later. Still, “at the moment, when she [Hannah Bocking] was launched into eternity,” one observer reported, “an involuntary shuddering pervaded the assembled crowd, and although she excited little sympathy, a general feeling of horror was expressed that one so young should have been so guilty, and so insensible.”

We have this lovely hanging broadsheet of Hannah’s execution (transcribed below) via Harvard University library.


Hannah Bocking, though of so young an age, appears to have had a mind greatly darkened and depraved, for it seems that she was instigated to the dreadful crime that she committed, solely from envy and hatred to the young woman (Jane Grant) because she lived in the family of her Grandfather-in-law, as servant, where she had herself formerly lived, and been turned away.

She procured arsnic [sic] at a surgeon’s in the neighbourhood, by saying, that it was for her Grandfather, for the purpose of killing Rats, and she prevailed on a young man to go with her, saying, that they would not sell it alone to her.

This mortal poison she put into a spice cake, and gave it the young woman, who thanked her, and unsuspectedly eat it, but was soon after seized with dreadful pains and agonies. In her illness she was attended by her relations, and being about to expire, her dying declaration was taken, that the cake she had eaten was the cause of the torments she suffered, which dying declaration was produced at the trial, and which, connected with other strong circumstances, was satisfactory to the minds of the jury and to every person in court.

So senseless and hardened in sin was this wretched creature, that she shewed no signs of remorse, nor appeared at all sensible of her awful situation when he solemn sentence of death was passed on her by the Learned Judge, but it seems that she felt severely afterwards on her return in the Caravan to the Gaol she shed many bitter tears, and continued crying for hours.

It was in this situation that she confessed her crime to a Lady, distinguished for her humanity; and entirely cleared her Brother and Sister in law from any participation in her crime. She declared that she alone was guilty.

On the Jury returning their verdict of Guilty, the learned Judge rose and passed sentence of death upon her, that her body should be given to the surgeons to be dissected and anatomized; at the same time most solemnly expatiating upon the enormity of the unnatural crime she had committed, and the horrid light she must appear before her divine Maker, recommending a sincere repentance and a full confession of her guilt.

Since her condemnation she has been attended by the Chaplain of the Gaol, and the Rev. Mr. Leech and others; and we hope their instructions have proved beneficial to her soul Between twelve and one o’clock she was brought in front of the county Gaol, and having spent a shot time in prayer, she was launched into eternity, amidst a vast concourse of spectators, a dreadful example for all such as indulge the sin of envy, hatred, or malice. From envy, hatred, and malice may the Lord in his grace deliver us. Amen.

Sin has a thousand treach’rous arts,
 To practice on the mind;
With flatt’ring looks she tempts our hearts,
 BUt leaves a sting behind.

With names of virtue she deceives
 The aged and the young;
And while the heedless wretch believes,
 She makes his fetters strong.

She pleads for all the joys she brings,
 And gives a fair pretence;
But cheats the soul of heav’nly things,
 And chains it down to sense.

Part of the Themed Set: Arsenic.

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Themed Set: Arsenic

Add comment March 22nd, 2014 Headsman

One of this site’s recurring themes and criminology’s iconic trappings, the poison arsenic carried off many a soul.

Poison has been around forever, of course, but “inheritance powder” was a slow-motion moral panic in the Victorian years — when a man on the make could be imperceptibly nudged into an early grave by a friend or a spouse or a maid using a product that could be had for pennies from the local apothecary.

Who can feel safe, when little old ladies could make a murder spree of afternoon tea?

For the next several days, we’ll remember a few of the arsenic era’s more notable nudges … and a few of the distinct minority of poisoners who found that stealthy powder equally fatal to the hand that stirred it.

Arsenic photo (cc) image from Curious Expeditions.

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1818: Abraham Casler, marital woes

1 comment May 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1818, Abraham Casler was hanged in Schoharie, N.Y. for escaping an ill-advised marriage by means of an illicit powder.

Casler had got young Catherine (Caty) Sprecker pregnant and was only induced to change her name in 1812 by threat of prosecution. Even at the wedding he told the bride’s own brother that he didn’t intend to live with the poor girl.

Casler immediately regretted committing himself to wedlock in any form whatsoever (his alternative would have been to pay a fine, much the bargain as compared to an unpromising marriage — particularly so in those benighted days before no-fault divorce). So he promptly enlisted in the army then fighting the War of 1812 so as “not to live with his wife that he wished … was out of the land of the living,” as he said to another recruit.

Well.

If wishes were fishes, they’d have arsenic inside. (n.b.: they do!)

When he finally had to return, Casler preferred to spend his time paying court to a widowed Albany innkeeper, and generally had a manifestly unhappy time of it with Caty. The latter’s epileptic fits probably only exacerbated the unwilling husband’s ire.

At last, while traveling, Caty Casler took ill with “a burning heat at her stomach & breast … cold chills by spells accompanied with sweat.” She “said her whole body was in pain; she was alernately [sic] cold and hot; would throw off the bed clothes, and then cover herself again.” After a couple of miserable bedridden days, all the while being personally treated by an attentive Abraham Casler who also shooed away attempts by other guests to assist or to summon medical aid,* Caty Casler succumbed, and “looked blue round the mouth and eyes” and “her hair came out.”

Doctors who conducted the post-mortem found what they were certain was arsenic and opium in Caty’s stomach. The trial record features a number of these medical men describing the exact tests they used to establish the presence of this deadly mineral; for instance, a Dr. James W. Miller described finding “particles … of a vitrious appearance” in the stomach.

Some of those particles were placed on a heated iron; a dense white fume arose from their combustion. Some of them were likewise placed between two plates of polished copper prepared for the purpose; those coppers were bound by an iron wire and placed into the fire until they were brought to red heat; they were then removed and after they were cold they were separated, the interior of the plates were whitened towards the edges of the plate in the form of a circle.

Last, taking two teaspoons of stomach fluid containing these suspicious particles,

He diluted it with a pint of water, then took the nitrate of silver and dissolved it and put into a separate glass; took pure ammonia into another glass; then took two glass rods, wet the end of one of them in the solution of the nitrate of silver, and dipped the end of the other in the pure ammonia, then brought the two ends of the rods in contact on the surface of the water in the vessel containing the contents of the stomach, and passed them down into the fluid; there was a precipitate from the point of contact, that precipitate was of an orange colour. He repeated that experiment several times, and also with arsenic dissolved in water. The results of the experiment were similar; the same precipitate in the one as in the other, tho’ it was more distinct in the solution made of arsenic, that being coulourless.

There was, in Dr. Miller’s opinion, “arsenic in the stomach; [he] has no doubt of it; considers the test made by him infallible; does not know that any thing except arsenic, will produce the same effect on copper, as was produced by those particles in the experiment.”

The court record merely summarizes the testimony witness by witness rather than providing a literal transcription, but one gets a sense of the thing merely leafing through it: it has 16 pages of prosecution testimony, from Casler’s Albany crush and family members catching him in suspicious circumstances, plus six different physicians, one of whom was a Professor of Chemistry at Fairfield Medical Academy.

The defense has one-half of one page, consisting of a flat denial by Casler and the observations of one former boarder with nothing useful to say.

The jury took two hours to convict.

After Casler hanged at the eponymous seat of Schoharie County (admitting his guilt on the scaffold), the gallows were left standing “as a solemn admonition of the penalty such crimes demand.”

That admonition had to be repeated: less than a year later, the crossbeam that had once supported Casler’s dying throes was tested again to dispatch a farmer from Sharon Springs who had bludgeoned a deputy sheriff to death.

* “It would only make a bill of expense,” Casler said of the prospect of summoning a physician for his wife. This was also the same disquieting answer he gave when asked if he would be taking the body to bury with her family; instead, he unsentimentally buried it at the nearest available spot, where it was soon exhumed by suspicious locals. The guy hung himself with skinflintedness.

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1752: Mary Blandy, “forgiveness powder”

1 comment April 6th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1752, 32-year-old Mary Blandy was hanged for the murder of her father, Francis. He had died in agony on August 14 the previous year, having been sick for months.

That Mary had poisoned her father with arsenic was not in dispute; the evidence proved it and she admitted it herself, even before he died.

The question was as to her motive, and her intentions. Mary conceded she had caused Francis’s death, but denied having ever meant to harm him.

The events that lead to Francis Blandy’s demise at the age of 61 began in 1746. Mary was Francis’s beloved only child and an old maid by the standards of day. They lived in Henley-Upon-Thames, Oxfordshire, UK.

Although scarred from a bout with smallpox, she was well-educated, witty and intelligent, and advertised a dowry of £10,000. But she had never been able to find a suitor her father approved of, until Captain William Henry Cranstoun came along.

Cranstoun was several years older than Mary, short, ugly, a compulsive gambler and not terribly bright, but he was a member of the Scottish aristocracy, the younger son of an earl. When he proposed in 1747, both father and daughter happily said yes.

Unfortunately for the two lovers, Francis Blandy soon learned that Cranstoun was already encumbered with a wife and child back in Scotland. Cranstoun swore (falsely) that he was not legally married to the woman and she’d only ever been his mistress; smitten Mary believed him, but Francis didn’t take kindly to the deception and he showed his would-be son-in-law the door.

Cranstoun, however, was not going to let a £10,000 dowry slip through his fingers so easily.

While he tried (unsuccessfully) to annul his existing marriage, he remained in touch with Mary for years and told her about a special powder made by wise women in Scotland, which caused those who took it to forgive their enemies.

Mary was skeptical, but Cranstoun swore it really worked and said he’d taken it once himself and felt its effects. He obtained some of the powder and convinced Mary to start slipping it into her father’s food and tea, so his heart would soften and he would allow his daughter to marry the man she loved.

Such was Mary’s story, at any rate, and she stuck with it until her dying day.

She swore she did not realize the magic powder was toxic. Sure, Francis rapidly became sick with heartburn and stomach pains, but he had suffered these symptoms before. Then his condition worsened. He vomited constantly and all of his teeth fell out. Mary finally summoned a doctor.

By then it was too late, for both father and daughter. The family servants became suspicious after several of them got violently sick when they drank tea intended for Francis.

One of them noticed a white grainy substance in the bottom of a bowl of gruel Mary had fed her ailing father. The servants took the substance to Francis’s doctor, who determined it was arsenic. Around the same time, another servant saw Mary throw a bundle of Cranstoun’s letters into the fire. She also tried to burn a packet which the servant rescued from the flames; it contained white powder identical to the arsenic that was rapidly burning through the old man’s entrails from the inside out.

When he was informed his daughter had poisoned him and guessed why, Francis refused to be angry with her, saying, “Poor love-sick girl! What will a woman not do for the man she loves?”

As he lay in extremis, Mary rushed to his bedside and begged her father to forgive her. An indulgent parent to the very end (or perhaps the “forgiveness powder” really had worked), he blessed his wayward child and told her he would “pray to God to bless thee, and to amend thy life.” He blamed Cranstoun for everything.

A few days later he was dead.

Mary ran from the house after his death, pursued by an angry mob, and took refuge in the Little Angel Pub. Eventually she was persuaded to surrender herself to the authorities. On August 17, she was arrested.

When Francis’s estate was settled, its worth was determined to be only about £4,000. Cranstoun would have never gotten that £10,000 dowry: it didn’t exist.

James C. Whorton discusses her trial in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play:

‘A vast concourse of people’ gathered for the trial, including many students from the university (whom one prosecutor could not resist lecturing ‘See here the dreadful consequences of disobedience to a parent’). The proceedings lasted but a single day, albeit a long one, running from eight in the morning till nine at night. Conducting herself ‘with more than masculine firmness’, Mary continued to insist that she was the victim of a cruel deception (‘What women can withstand the arguments and persuasions men will make of us?’), but the jury would have none of it. Devoting only five minutes to deliberation, not even retiring from the courtroom, they pronounced the defendant guilty.

Just before her execution, Mary wrote out her side of the story, which can be read in full online. Whorton records her death:

The prisoner was hanged five weeks later, on 6 April 1752, still avowing her innocence: ‘May I not meet with eternal salvation,’ she declared from the scaffold, ‘nor be acquitted by the almighty God, in whose awful presence I am instantly to appear,’ if guilty. Then, ‘without shedding one tear,’ Mary Blandy pulled her handkerchief over her face and dropped into eternity.

Her last words were, “For the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high.”

There was a lot of public sympathy for Mary, particularly after her execution, but none for Captain Cranstoun.

The Newgate Calendar called him a “profligate wretch” and “a disgrace to the noble blood from which he derived existence.” He escaped the grip of British justice by the skin of his teeth, going into hiding in the Continent when he found out about his fiancee’s arrest.

In the end, however, he got what was coming to him: nine months after Mary’s death, in Belgium, he was stricken by an unspecified intestinal ailment and met much the same end as Francis Blandy.

There was plenty of news coverage about Mary’s case, which had all the hallmarks of a morality play, and which was, in fact, made into one titled The Fair Parricide: A Tragedy in Three Acts. On top of this was the controversy over Mary’s intentions: was she was a conniving and ruthless little minx, a lovesick and pathetically naive girl, or something in between? The Newgate Calendar summed it up thusly:

With regard to Miss Blandy, the public have ever been divided in opinion on her case. Those who have presumed on her innocence have tacitly acknowledged that she was very weak, which contradicts the accounts we have of her genius and mental acquirements. On the contrary, those who have insisted on her guilt, have made no allowances for the weakness of the female mind; nor considered the influence of an artful man over the heart of a girl in love.

Her solemn declaration of her innocence would almost tempt one to think that she was innocent; for it is next to impossible to suppose that a woman of her sense and education would depart this life with a wilful lie in her mouth.

Be all this as it may, an obvious lesson is to be learnt from her fate. — Young ladies should be cautious of listening to the insidious address of artful love as they know not how soon, and how unsuspectedly, their hearts may be engaged to their own destruction, founded on the violation of all their nobler duties.

Mary Blandy was buried between her parents in the Henley Parish Church. There is no trace of her grave today, but her ghost is said to haunt the Little Angel Pub and also the site of her execution, which is the present-day Westford shopping center.

She would be remembered for hundreds of years after her death. Scottish lawyer and true crime writer William Roughead published an examination of her case, The Trial of Mary Blandy, in 1914; it is available free online here. Roughead concluded Mary had deliberately murdered her father. The case was made into a BBC miniseries, and in 1950, Joan Morgan published a novel based on the story, called The Hanging Wood, later retitled simply Mary Blandy.

Update: Because you can find anything on the Internet: the story of Mary Blandy in shadow puppetry.

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1846: Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh, in her rocking chair

1 comment January 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1846, a 46-year-old woman lamed from a fall got noosed in her rocking chair in Fulton, N.Y.

Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh had been widowed at 34 with four children, when her first husband died of dyspepsia and exposure. “There is no foundation,” the prisoner explained, “for the report that I had in any way hastened his death, nor did such a thing ever enter my mind.”

She remarried shortly thereafter to John Van Valkenburgh, apparently a violent drunk, whose depredations eventually led Elizabeth to get rid of him by spiking his tea with arsenic. “To this act I was prompted by no living soul,” she said in her confession. “I consulted with no one on the subject, nor was any individual privy to it.” She may have been keen to clear any public suspicion from her oldest children — they were old enough to try to get mom to move out of the house with them and offer to help take care of the younger kids. She suffered a fall from a barn’s hayloft as she was hiding out, which crippled her leg.

The key original documents from her trial, including the death sentence and the rejection of clemency (a petition to which 10 of Valkenburgh’s 12 jurors subscribed) are preserved here.

Oh, and one other thing. On the eve of her hanging, the condemned murderess produced a germane revision to her aforementioned confession, recalling that there may actually have been some foundation for the report that she also hastened her first husband’s death.

With respect to my first husband I should have stated that about a year before his death I mixed arsenic, which I purchased several months previously at Mr. Saddler’s in Johnstown, with some rum which he had in a jug, of which he drunk once, and by which he was made very sick and vomited, but it did not prevent his going to work the next day and continuing to work afterwards, until the next June. His feet and the lower part of his legs became numb after drinking this, which continued until his death, and his digestion was also impaired.

I always had a very ungovernable temper, and was so provoked by his going to Mr. Terrill’s bar where he had determined to go and I had threatened that if he did go he should never go to another bar, and as he did go nothwithstanding this, I put in the arsenic as I have said.

Right.

Because of the her impaired mobility, the condemned poisoner was carried in her rocking chair to the gallows, and stayed right in it for the whole procedure. They noosed her up sitting in the rocker, and dropped the platform to hang her as she rocked away in it.

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1852: Ann Hoag and Jonas Williams

Add comment July 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1852, a white woman and a black man — no connection between them — were hanged on an upward-jerking gallows in Poughkeepsie, New York.

31-year-old (though she looked 22, said smitten newsmen) Ann Hoag was a foundling who’d been raised by an adoptive family, then married a local farmer in a union that featured at least five children, financial loss, and a good deal of unhappiness. The sequence of causation among those mutually convivial characteristics is left for the reader’s imagination. Eventually — the New York Times (July 31, 1852) is most piquant on this — succumbing to the thrall of a younger lover, “the ill-starred woman plunged into misery and degradation, renounced virtue, reputation, husband, and children, until at last she murdered her husband” with arsenic and eloped with her paramour to Bridgeport.

Luckily for Ann, her brief summer of carnal liberty sufficed to quicken her belly, with the result that her delicate condition bought her a few extra months of life. On April 18, 1852, she gave birth to a baby daughter, and sealed her own fate.

A most interesting scene occurred in the separation of the child from the unhappy mother, which none but a mother’s heart can conceive. It appeared as if the last prop of life, the very cords of the heart were being severed, when, with the most endearing caresses, amid tears and sobs, the mother looked for the last time on that innocent babe, which since its birth had unconsciously shared her solitude and been her solace. As it passed forever from her sight, she exclaimed — “Now let them execute me — I have nothing to live for — one by one they have dragged my children from me.” (Albany Journal, Aug. 5, 1852)

Although the faithless wife left a 70-page statement implicating her lover William Somers, that gentleman was acquitted in October of 1852 on a charge of accessory to murder.

Jonas Williams, Ann Hoag’s partner upon the gallows, was much less the sighed-over. Williams committed a “fiendish outrage” upon his 11-year-old stepdaughter, killing her.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,USA,Women

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1936: Mary Frances Creighton and Everett Applegate

2 comments July 16th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1936, onetime lovers Everett C. Applegate (referred to in some accounts as “Edward” or “Earl”) and Mary Frances Creighton, who went by her middle name, were electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison for the murder of Ada Applegate, Everett’s wife.


Mary Frances Creighton (top) and Everett Applegate.

Newspapers of the time referred to Frances as the Long Island Borgia. The murder came about as a result of, depending on your point of view, a Jerry Springer-type sensation or horrific child sexual abuse or both: In 1934, Frances and her husband and their two children were living with the Applegates and their daughter in Nassau County, New York.

By January 1935, Everett Applegate was having an affair with Frances. He was also interested in the Creightons’ blooming teenage daughter, Ruth. By June of that year the thirty-something man was sleeping with her also, with the knowledge of — and in at least one case, in sight of — Ada, whose obesity kept her mostly confined to bed.

Ruth was delighted with her new boyfriend, who drove her anyplace she wanted to go, gave her money and and bought her clothes and other gifts. But when Frances found out about the relationship in July, she was furious and humiliated.

Not only was Everett in the arms of another, but he was making her, Frances, look like a bad mother. Ruth was going to school dressed like a harlot, even wearing lipstick. Suppose she became pregnant? This would bring terrible shame upon the family.

In mid-September, Ada Applegate became violently sick, with diarrhea and bilious vomit. She spent a few days in the hospital and was discharged, without a diagnosis but feeling much better.

Immediately after she got home, however, her symptoms returned, and she died two days later, on September 27. The cause of death was listed as “coronary occlusion” — in other words, a heart attack.

Frances was a bit of a hard case and no stranger to murder. She and her husband John were living with his parents, as well as her teenage brother, Raymond Avery, in New Jersey in 1920 when Anna and Walter Creighton suddenly sickened and died, one after the other.

In 1923, Raymond too became ill with the same symptoms and rapidly expired, and his sister and brother-in-law collected his $1,000 life insurance policy. Frances and John were charged with his murder after the autopsy, held in spite of their objections, found arsenic in young Raymond’s body.

After the autopsy, deeply suspicious investigators exhumed the elder Creightons’ bodies while their son and daughter-in-law were in jail. No arsenic could be found in Walter’s system, but Anna’s contained a lethal dose, and Frances (but not John this time) was charged with murder even before she came to trial for her brother’s death. She’d never gotten along with her in-laws or they with her, and just before Anna became ill, Frances had made ominous statements that the old woman would shortly “destroy herself.”

The Creightons’ four-day trial for Raymond’s murder resulted in acquittal for both defendants. John went home and Frances remained in custody for another two weeks until she faced her next trial, for the death of Anna Creighton. The prosecution was unable to prove she had personally purchased any poison, and the 24-year-old defendant, an attractive nursing mother who was keeping her infant son in her cell with her, presented a sympathetic picture. Once again, she heard a jury announce a murder acquittal.

But she didn’t take warning from her two near escapes.

Twelve years later, Ada Applegate became the third person close to Frances Creighton who died of arsenic poisoning. Goodness knows how many more she might have ventured.

The police knew about Frances’s relatives’ proclivities for mysterious deaths, and were deeply suspicious. An autopsy revealed three times the lethal dose of arsenic in Ada’s corpse, and it didn’t take long for Frances to crack under questioning.

She admitted to poisoning Ada, but also implicated Everett, saying he’d known about the crime all along and had helped her. She also claimed he used his knowledge of her past to blackmail her into having sex with him.

Frances killed Ada, Frances said, so Everett would have a chance to make an honest woman out of Ruth, and because Ada had been gossiping in the neighborhood about her husband’s affair with the girl.

Frances Creighton and Everett Applegate found themselves arrested. Only then did a bewildered John find out about the sexual improprieties that had been going on for months right under his nose. Remarkably, he stood by Frances and said he believed her to be innocent of murder.

He was the only one.

A look into Frances’s past revealed some very additional suspicious incidents apart from the deaths in her family. Relatives of a neighbor she quarreled with got extremely ill after having tea with Frances, and although they pulled through, later on, the neighbor’s house burned down.

The fire was arson and Frances had been the prime suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to arrest her.

As for Everett Applegate, the case against him was far less persuasive.

Frances made three statements: in the first, as told above, she implicated her erstwhile lover. In the second, she said she’d done the murder all on her own and Everett was not involved. The third time she went back to blaming him: he had mixed the poison, and she had given it to his wife.

To this shaky accusation add the ill feeling engendered by Everett’s caddish mores, and it was enough for an indictment. (Everett was also charged with criminally assaulting Ruth. At his arraignment he attempted to plead guilty to this, saying, “I want to marry this girl.” The judge refused to accept the plea.)

By the time of the trial, Frances had gone all-in on blaming Everett. She claimed the lothario had “made” her poison Ada. Her defense portrayed her as a weak woman who had been lead astray by an evil, domineering male. But Everett’s lawyer made sure the jury heard about the deaths of her brother and parents-in-law in New Jersey, and her conviction was a foregone conclusion.

The main evidence against Everett was Frances’s testimony, the fact that he was known to have purchased the rat poison that wound up in Ada’s eggnog, and his despoiling the teenage daughter of his paramour. Everett’s defense attorney agreed their client was a scumbag and a pervert, but denied that he was a murderer.

In his concluding arguments, the attorney asked the jury to acquit Everett of killing his wife and convict him instead of the rape of Ruth. It didn’t work: the jury convicted him on both counts.

While the two condemned awaited their fate, Ruth, who had been sent to a girls’ reform school, would later write a letter to the authorities. She said her mother was innocent and she had heard Everett say he wanted to do away with Ada so he could marry her. No one believed her story.

On the day of their executions, Frances was given the first slot in hopes that she might make a final statement exonerating Everett. Alas, she was in no condition to give any statement at all; suffering from hysterical paralysis, she had to be taken to the chamber on a wheelchair, and some reports state that she was completely unconscious when they strapped her into it. She was the first executee at Sing Sing in 45 years who was unable to walk on their own to their death.

Everett, still protesting his innocence, followed her ten minutes later.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Sex,USA,Women

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1912: Frederick Seddon, for love of money

2 comments April 18th, 2012 Headsman

A century ago today, a jittery Frederick Seddon hanged at Pentonville Prison for murder.

This was a sensational and utterly circumstantial case … although the laudatory London Times editorial of March 15, 1912 noted, “as Shakespeare has it, there are ‘strong circumstances which lead directly to the door of truth.'”

(This earnestly presented line might have been inserted by a subversive copywriter, since the Shakespeare character who spoke those words was the duplicitous Iago … in the scene where he misleads Othello into believing his wife unfaithful and sets in motion the play’s tragic outcome.)

Seddon, the district superintendent of the London and Manchester Insurance Company, wouldn’t have been the type to appreciate the irony. He was a prosperous little man who knew the value of a pound and not enough else.

A couple of years before, Seddon’s family had taken on as a boarder an eccentric, cheapskate spinster answering to the name of Eliza Barrow. Everyone got on famously and Barrow came to trust the discreet bourgeois’s financial advice — trusted it even enough to transfer to him thousands of pounds of assets in exchange for a three-quid-a-week lifetime annuity plus rent-free lodgings.*

Annuity Gratuity

Now, Jane Austen would have us believe that “people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them,” but this was not at all the case with Miss Barrow: just a few months after emptying her coffers into Seddon’s, she took ill with stomach pain, refused to pony up for a hospital visit and made Mrs. Seddon nurse her,** and after two weeks’ misery finally died in her bed on September 14, 1911.

The doctor who had called on her a couple of times ruled her, sight-unseen, a casualty of a going diarrhea epidemic, and handed to Seddon a death certificate which conveniently enabled him to arrange her immediate funeral, on the cheap.

And that was that.

Only when Barrow’s relatives caught wind of her fate and came calling, there to get short shrift from the landlord along with news that all their prospective inheritance was now his, did the strange dead woman get on her way to becoming a household name. When the corpse was exhumed fully two months after burial, there was still enough arsenic in it to kill a person.

Odorless, colorless, and tasteless, with symptoms mimicking gastrointestinal disease in a time when cholera was frequent and autopsies were rare, arsenic got its reputation as “inheritance powder” from its supposed-but-difficult-to-prove widespread use in the 19th century to hasten inconvenient rivals and relations off this mortal coil.

The stuff was also pretty easily available, in products like flypaper. The Seddons had purchased some arsenical flypaper a few days before their lodger fell ill, and the inference is that they soaked it† (which you’re supposed to do) and then laced the resulting poison-laced water into Barrow’s victuals (which you’re not).


It’s her own fault she didn’t insist on Acme brand arsenic-free water. (cc) image from Carlton Browne.

Pomp & Circumstance

All this admittedly incriminating stuff hung together as a case on so much supposition: that Barrow died from arsenic, and that the otherwise un-homicidal Seddons had means, motive, and opportunity to kill her, did not quite add up to proof positive.

Of course, one of the many murderous virtues of arsenic was the ease with which one could administer it, suspicion-free. Very rarely did anyone glimpse the villain, eyebrows peaked and mustache a-twirl, theatrically tapping out drops from a skull-labeled vial: even with the forensic methods coming online, arsenic allegations were circumstantial as to who and how and why practically by definition.

Progress of the case that winter made headlines all over, the biggest thing to hit the bar since Dr. Crippen.

It also became a permanent entry in the lawyers’ primer on why not to let your client testify.

Both Frederick Seddon and his wife Margaret stood trial together, and the evidence against each was pretty much the same. But Margaret was a slam-dunk acquittal, and in fact the judge’s charge to the jury all but directed that result.

However, Frederick’s insistence on testifying to rebut some of the aspersions cast on him would backfire catastrophically. (At least, that was Seddon’s lawyer’s take.)

Seddon insisted on his innocence to the very last, and to read with that idea in mind the testimony he gave for himself, it rarely looks substantively damning. But Seddon’s carriage reputedly pulled together for the jury all the trial’s circumstantial bits, into a believable story of a mean and stone-hearted fellow fully capable of killing for lucre. His demeanor was calm to the point of coldness, his command of the finances in his life meanly obsessive, and he showed unnerving insensibility to human fellow-feeling with his late tenant (he started selling her jewelry the day after she died) or her bereaved (he made only a perfunctory effort to notify her family, and gave them little help when they did show up on the grounds that none was the legal next of kin).

“I am not so ready to think evil of people,” Frederick Seddon said ingenuously at one point when the topic was other people who might have been robbing Miss Barrows. It’s like it didn’t occur to him even while on trial for his life that anyone might think evil of him.

Take, for example, this response to the suggestion that he had stolen a couple hundred pounds sterling from the trunk in Eliza Barrow’s room immediately upon her death.

Your suggestion infers [sic! sort of!] that I am a greedy, inhuman monster, committing a vile crime, such as the prosecution suggests, and then bringing the dead woman’s money down and counting it in the presence of my assistants. The suggestion is scandalous. I would have had all day to count the money.

It has a sort of autistic genius, an absolute tone-deafness that would be impossible to place in a literary character’s mouth lest the scene collapse into slapstick. Jurors must have taken the bloodless insurance adjustor for an insect, and accordingly had not the least compunction about squashing him.

Here’s more Seddon testimony under cross-examination. Again, it’s not exactly self-incriminating, but sufficiently calculating and blase to give you the willies when juxtaposed with late events of his life.

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL proceeded to question Seddon on the subject of the annuity which he said he granted to Miss Barrow in consideration of the transfer to him of her leasehold property and India stock.

Had you ever done an annuity transaction before?

“Never in my life.”

This has turned out a remarkably lucky investment from a money point of view?

“Only from that point of view.”

According to what has happened, you paid out altogether £91 and the whole of the property fell to you — you had no longer any money to pay out? You had got the property on the condition that you were to pay out an annuity?

“Exactly, which I did.”

What I am putting to you is that when she died you no longer had to pay out money to her?

“Certainly not — that is the basis on which an annuity is granted.”

You were dealing with this woman, who was living in your house and who had no other advice, certainly as regards this matter?

“That is her fault. She was advised to have a solicitor. I bound myself by legal documents to pay her an annuity, and I carried out my obligations.”

Until September 14?

“During the whole course — as long as she lived.”

In reply to further questions, the prisoner said he only benefited to the extent of 28s. per week by not having to pay the annuity. Asked whether there would be any one else who would benefit by Miss Barrow’s death, he said he had never given that question any consideration. Asked whether he thought Miss Barrow was a person of ordinary mental capacity, he replied “Yes,” adding that he considered she was a very deep woman. As an insurance agent he from his observations considered that she was an indifferent life.

Did you form that opinion when you were negotiating with her for the annuity?

“I might have done. Her average expectation of life was only 21 years.”

Your view was that she would not live over that term, and according to your view she would live less?

“I did not expect her to live the average expectation of life — a woman in her indifferent state of health. She would not be a life that I would recommend any insurance company to accept.”

The jury only needed an hour to shorten Frederick Seddon’s life expectancy to the next few weeks.


Frederick Seddon receives his death sentence on March 15, 1912.

Yet even with the black cap on his head, the judge — a Freemason to whom fellow-initiate Seddon nakedly appealed in open court, “before the Great Architect of the Universe,” for remission of the penalty — couldn’t really articulate exactly what Seddon had been convicted for.

[E]ven if what you say is strictly correct, that there is no evidence that you were ever left at the material time alone in the room of the deceased person, there is still, in my opinion, ample evidence to show that you had the opportunity of putting poison into her food or into her medicine. You had a motive for this crime. That motive was the greed of gold. Whether it was that you wanted to put an end to the annuities or not, I know not — you only can know. Whether it was to get gold that was or was not, or that you thought was, in the cash-box, I do not know. But I think I do know this — that you wanted to make a great pecuniary profit by felonious means.

That’s been the verdict on Frederick Seddon ever since.

* As much as this reads like a transparent con, the modern reader probably won’t have to stretch very far to suppose why Eliza Barrow might have set more stock by a trusted neighbor with a bookkeeper’s heart than she would by dubious machinations of distant and unaccountable economic institutions. Heck, there’d only just been a bank run.

** Reported regimen: barley water and milk, beef juice, and soda water. Mmm-mmm.

† Trial testimony recounted at least one case where the landlords laid four pieces of flypaper into the soaking water. Since one was all that was needed, the presumptive purpose would be to strengthen the liquid’s concentration of poison.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf

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